Scottish redcaps

Our project is made by everyone who has been involved – particularly the volunteer teams at the institutions involved doing the hard work of transcribing the reports underlying the database. Whilst they’ve been asked to transcribe or summarise as faithfully as possible what’s found in the reports, we knew from the outset that we needed to provide a space for the volunteers to capture any questions, thoughts, or patterns they spotted whilst looking over the records. This means that one of the final columns in our database has plenty of useful observations – and they can direct our attention to incidents which might not otherwise immediately be spotted amongst the 23,000 or so cases in our database.

One such case is Robert Mackay, a ‘redcap boy.’ The transcriber picked up on this job title, which they’d not seen before – and neither had we. So, here’s Robert’s story.

aerial photo of Leith docks, showing a vast expanse of railway sidings around the docks.

1932 aerial photo of Leith docks.
Courtesy Historic Environment Scotland.

On 24 October 1900, he was working at South Leith Docks. His role as ‘redcap boy’ was to walk either ahead or behind engines or trains moving around the docks, to warn people to keep out of the way. This would have been necessary as there would have been so much going on in this environment – people moving, trains moving, shipping moving, cranes moving – making it more challenging than normal for any one person to keep watch and keep safe.

He was booked to work for 12 hours, with an hour’s break for meals. At the time of his accident, at 7.15pm, he had been on duty for 11 hours. The engine for which he was acting as redcap boy was shunting in and around No. 5 shed. Having left its train on the dock main line, the loco was moved into the shed to pick up another rake of wagons. Having shunted these, the loco was running back to be coupled to the train ‘and whilst this was being done Mackay was knocked down by the engine about 60 yards east of the shed, and so injured that he died about 5 ½ hours afterwards.’

There is, of course, a bitter irony that he should have been killed by the engine he was supposed to be protecting others from.

1906 Ordnance Survey map of Leith docks area.

1906 OS map.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

The investigation, by Inspector John Hornby pulled out a lot of useful detail, helping us understand the dangers of railway dock work, as well as operating practices at this location. As it was germane to the case, Hornby quoted from the regulations in force at this location:

There shall be constantly accompanying each Locomotive or Train two qualified Engine Pilots, each wearing a red cap, one of whom shall walk at a distance of not more than 30 feet in advance, and the other of whom shall be immediately behind the Locomotive or Train, and that it shall be the duty of each of them to warn all persons to keep out of danger.

Hornby concluded that whilst the accident ‘appears to have been accidental’, Mackay wasn’t carrying out the instruction. With redcap man James Law in front of the engine, Mackay should have been protecting the rear. Hornby admitted that he didn’t know why Mackay had gone to the front, but he was willing to speculate: ‘it was probably to have a ride upon the leading buffer of it’. Regardless of the accuracy of this idea, he did suggest that, on a more systematic basis, the regulations weren’t complied with: ‘it is clear from the evidence that the redcap boys do frequently ignore the instructions and ride upon the engines’.

Indeed, the driver involved on this occasion – A Hirst – noted that ‘in several instances the deceased had been warned by [… Hirst] and requested to get off his engine’. Mackay refused to do so until the driver stopped the engine.

This wasn’t the first such accident, either. Hornby noted that ‘fatal and other serious accidents have previously happened to redcap boys’. This was because the work they undertook was ‘so heavy and tiresome that, in my opinion, they are not physically able to perform their work […] for so long a period as they work at present.’ He gave his recommendation ‘for future safety’ that the North British Railway, responsible for the location, ‘should be asked to seriously consider the advisability of reducing [redcap boys’] hours to eight per diem.’

Given the relatively stern censure about the length of hours and challenges of the work, this ‘asking to seriously consider’ a change seems very weak. They didn’t have to do anything – and there was nothing the inspectors could do to force a change, hence the appeal to the Company. Recognising that this might take time, Hornby asked that as an immediate step the instructions should be enforced more rigorously.

The report also showed us another aspect to practice at the docks: shunters were allowed to ride between locations in ‘these extensive dock lines’ – but redcap boys had to walk (1900 Quarter 3, Appendix B). There were dangers attached to both means of getting around, of course, as getting on and off moving stock was full of potential to fall and end up under a train. Put simply, any role that put people near train movements had risks attached.

Sadly, Robert’s case isn’t the only redcap in our database. We have another seven accidents to redcaps, two of which were fatal, and one of which involved life-changing injuries. Where we have the details, the ages of those involved are all between 15 and 17: this seems to have been an issue which affected the young. Presumably they started young in these roles and then moved on into other grades. All of these accidents also happened before 1907 – though it is unknown whether this is simply an artefact of which cases were investigated, or because there was a change in practice after 1906 which removed redcaps from danger.

What do we know of Robert? Not much, sadly. A report of the accident in The Scotsman on the following day noted that he had survived the accident initially, and had been taken to hospital ‘and up to a late hour last night was still conscious.’ The report gave Robert’s age as 17, disagreeing with the official report which put it at 15. Interestingly, it gives us a detail not found in Hornby’s report: ‘he was running alongside an engine, when he was knocked down and run over through its being driven on to a different line of rails from what he expected’ (25 October 1900, p.4).

We have a little more detail from a poignant death notice, placed by Robert’s parents in the Edinburgh Evening News on 26 October (p.4): ‘At Leith Hospital, on the 25th, the result of an accident, Robert, beloved son of James and Eliza Mackay. Funeral from 11 Ballantyne Road, on Sunday, at 1pm, to Seafield Cemetery. All friends kindly invited.’ A simple statement, but conveying grief very clearly. So far this is all we’ve turned up on Robert – precious little for another life lost at work on the railways.

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